The lane leading from the Buona Vista subway station to the nearby mall, as of late, is framed by eager touts or salesmen. Itinerant tissue-paper sellers – a euphemistic term to describe those who would narrowly become beggars – appear, set up shop, and often vanish without a trace.
“You see the sign on the wall? It says ‘Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen’. And we serve everything here except soup.” Continue reading
“It’ll be good for you to come along. Then you’ll see the reason why we do all this nonsense.”
A woman in her thirties standing next to me frowned. “No lah, this can’t be called nonsense.”
The man smirked. “Tony always calls this ‘nonsense’, so I just call it ‘nonsense’ too.”
The man who spoke was Mr Tay. He was a tall bespectacled man in his fifties, with a head of frizzy black hair and a general demeanour of whimsical belligerence. In front of us were a pair of white vans and one red Audi, their boots open and waiting. Stacks of styrofoam boxes lounged in big plastic bags on the floor, each labelled hastily in black marker with the names of various housing estates. From packing food the previous day, I had been placed on delivery duty. “Most of the volunteers today are children,” someone else had explained, and by virtue of being the next oldest (but not by a long stretch), I was their next candidate.
What he had called ‘nonsense’ was, in fact, the under-estimated task of making sure that the food the Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen produced went to its recipients – each box contained a combination of rice, stir-fried vegetables and meat that had been cooked the previous day. Two other volunteers and I were assigned to distribute food to four destinations around Singapore: Jalan Kukoh, Chin Swee Road, York Hill and Banda Street. Some of the deliveries were needed urgently: after all, this would be the only way many of the recipients could obtain a meal at all. Armed with a lengthy set of verbal instructions from the seasoned volunteers, Google Maps and sheets of addresses, we set off in the Audi. The car was driven by the woman in her thirties. Her name was Hui Yi, and I noticed from the miniature statue suspended from her front-view mirror that she was a Buddhist. It was heartening that she had no qualms about volunteering with a Christian organisation – though the act of service itself could be said to transcend religious boundaries and unite us all in our human desire to do good.
Jalan Kukoh and Chin Swee were two of Singapore’s oldest housing estates. Unlike other more populated estates with their fresh coats of bright paint and publicised community gatherings, these estates looked largely like they had ten years ago. We toted bags of food boxes past speckled stone columns and grey tiled floors. A pair of old men, faces ruddy and bronzed, leaned back onto stone benches under a pavilion and smiled at us when they realised what we were here to do. When we left the first batch of boxes for the estates’ elderly at a distribution point, I saw them edge forward expectantly. Further ahead, a younger man lurked in an alleyway, shirtless, reeking of cigarette smoke.
After returning to the car for the next batch of boxes, we proceeded to the door-to-door deliveries. The elevators smelled musty, and we shuffled for space behind octogenarians in wheelchairs and a skimpily-dressed woman with her young child. I got out first, and stepped into a dark corridor.
Though it was the middle of the afternoon, the landings were still shrouded in darkness. Dated Chinese New Year decorations, greyed at the edges, clung to the walls. A faded cross would appear on one worn pastel-yellow door, facing the remnants of burned-out incense sticks from tiny Taoist altars on the ground. Dried cat faeces sat at the foot of a flight of stairs and filled the air with a sharp odour. Sofas and chairs sat abandoned under spirals of dust motes caught in the sunlight filtering from windows in the side of each floor.
Many of those who answered the door were old men. Cursory peeks behind them into the front room of their apartment units showed bare beige floors, with often only a small shelf or an electric fan placed against the wall. Some would smile and thank us in low raspy voices, but many received their packages wordlessly. It was an all-too regular occurrence for them; one that they, unhappily, had no choice but to depend on. Sometimes it would be answered by a relative of the beneficiary. One was answered by a middle-aged woman, who smiled at me bracingly before turning to her mother, lying immobile on a mattress next to the door. Many of them had lost their jobs or were mired in debt, falling through the cracks.
One of them struck me more than the others. Another old man walked up to our car at our third destination. He moaned, gestured to his mouth, and shook his hands: no food. He fumbled in his wallet for his registration card, waving it before us imploringly. We pointed to the address sheets, asking him to identify his so that we could bring it to him. Again, he pointed to his card and grunted in some frustration. The employees of a nearby lumber shop watched with a benevolent exasperation, and told us about his situation. He was both deaf and mute, and lived alone.
In a bustling metropolis like Singapore, it can be easy to forget that there are very much still people who need our help. The poor, the destitute, the homeless. Even when we do interact with them – often in somewhat contrived settings, to satisfy ‘service hours’ or fulfil some corporate social responsibility component – it can be easy to ignore the humanity we share instead of viewing them as objects of our benefaction. But at the same time, it can be hard not to pain for those you have felt the suffering of.
We finished our shift beleaguered, but satisfied. On the drive back, we were no longer on a mission. Our shift was done, and the three of us now had other things to deal with and worry about.
If only the people we were serving had the luxury to do the same.
After my previous discovery of St Joseph’s Church, I yearned to be able to have a glimpse of the inside. At the same time, there was something impressively ornate about the building that almost deterred me from going in – a sense, I’d say, that I might be intruding on something sacred. But on a rainy Thursday I found myself standing outside a side door left ajar that led into the main sanctuary. I carefully shook my umbrella dry on the steps outside (I was too afraid of accidentally dirtying the floor), and walked in.
Immediately, I found myself swallowed by a vast quiet. The rain that had gotten onto my bag and clothes suddenly seemed immaterial, and I was seized by a burst of awe. Stretching before me were rows of pews of deep, dark polished wood that culminated in a massive alcove at the front of the hall, from which gazed the likenesses of various saints from within altars or the fronts of stained-glass windows. There were no services or Mass at the time I arrived, but instead quiet human activity bubbled from a group of church members putting up wreaths next to the windows. A solitary man knelt before a small golden side altar, silently crossing himself. Gingerly, I walked down the length of hall, fearful to touch anything or to go too near the icons of the Virgin Mary nearer the front. Though dark rain clouds were gathering outside the church, the area felt suffused with a regal levity. Perhaps it was the tall domed ceiling, or the flowing intricate architecture adorning the windows, or the images of saints that appeared to peer down on worshippers from their perches in nooks set within the pillars. In spite of myself, I felt a massive sense of reverence.
Later that day I was warned by a gruff caretaker not to ‘take too many photos’, and my own timidity has also made me refrain from taking as many as I’d normally have liked. Part of me was bursting with questions – about the architecture, the history of the church, and the people that still fill its halls now and then. But the dignity of the building arrested me; a dignity untarnished by its location just a stone’s throw away from a cluster of bustling shopping malls. For now, I will be content to sit and look around me, breathing in the dust of history and enjoying its quiet nobility.
Lately, every time I walk down the covered walkway leading from Buona Vista MRT Station to The Star Vista, I see an old woman sitting against a pillar. In the heat of the day she sits out in the open, flanked by the footfall of passers-by on one side and the dust stirred up by flocks of pigeons on the other. She was another of the itinerant tissue-paper sellers so often seen in Singapore’s crowded spaces, attempting to eke out a living by selling meagre packs of tissues to largely oblivious commuters. I had passed her by many times on my way home. This Christmas, I decided I could ignore her no longer.
I set out for the supermarket, feverishly combing the shelves for something she might need. I ended up purchasing a bunch of bananas, a pack of Milo, and two bottles of water–things that I hoped would make her stay out under the afternoon sun at least a little more bearable. Gingerly, I approached her usual seat, marked by a red place mat and a wicker basket filled with packets of tissue paper. Would she reject my gift? What would she think of my decision to do this? Was I even doing the right thing?
She was eating out of a styrofoam packet of mixed rice with vegetables when I saw her, and had a plastic cup of coffee at her feet. At least she was eating well, I thought with relief. She was also talking to a younger woman I didn’t recognise–a welcome respite from the hours of boredom she must have faced everyday. Swallowing, I presented the shopping bags to her, sheepishly explaining that I felt bad for seeing her sitting out in the heat all day. I didn’t feel it was enough to explain my sudden burst of charity, but it was worth a try. Unexpectedly, my gift was met with another. “Aiyoh, you’re so considerate!” both women exclaimed in Mandarin, and the elderly lady pressed something into my hands. It was a cardboard bookmark wrapped in transparent plastic, with ‘Great is God’s Love For Us.’ piped onto the surface in orange and green fluid.
Feeling that it would be inappropriate to dash off right after presenting my gift, and curious about their chance encounter, I stayed behind to talk to them. Despite the vicissitudes they must have been confronted with, both women constantly had radiant smiles on their faces, punctuating their conversations with enthusiastic acknowledgments of God’s blessings in their lives. At one point, another woman walked by and handed the elderly woman some money. “God Bless You!” she exclaimed loudly in English, cheerfully handing her another bookmark from the thick brown sheaf packed next to her packets of tissue. And though the younger woman spoke at a faster, more staccato pace than the deliberate speech of her elderly companion, both of them spoke with a simple, unadultered happiness. What said they said to me is translated directly from Mandarin.
“I’m from SBC at Redhill. Aunty (referring to the old lady) worships at the church here (Star Vista). I happened to come here and both of us believe in God, so we just started talking. I’m originally from Malaysia, you know! I have three children. The oldest is 20 years old, only 2 years older than you. He’s studying in ITE and also works repairing air-conditioners, he got a 2.9 G… G whatever you call it, so he’s deciding whether to stay back or to just go to the army. The second is 18 and the third is 15, all studying here. The eldest and the youngest are also Christian, and their father told them, ‘If you want to be Christians, don’t come into my house.’ But I told them, ‘Don’t worry! Leave your worries to God.’ I can’t read very well, so when I read the Bible I’m very slow; I listen to an audiobook. You know, my child’s boyfriend’s cousin, he went to Malacca and a car ran over him. We had to go to the hospital to get him a new leg. We thought he wouldn’t make it, but praise God, the flesh began to grow around the metal they put in during the surgery! You speak English or Chinese? In English my name is Kristina, with a ‘K’. In Chinese, you can just call me Lizhen.”
“Just call me Po-po (婆婆, ‘grandma’ in Mandarin); will do. I used to sell tissue papers somewhere else, but since I came here I’ve been able to sell tissue papers for a long time. I have a sick husband at home, so I have to go out and support him. I got to know Jesus several decades ago, but only really accepted him six years ago. I used to bring my Bible with me when I went out, but it was too heavy so I decided not to bring it anymore. If not, I could read it while I’m here selling tissue paper. These bookmarks were made by a good friend of mine to give out, so just take one! Aunty knows so many young boys and girls; I cannot remember all their names. You’ve seen me here for so many weeks and you only come and talk to me now? Why did you spend so much on me when you’re not working yet?”
In this season of giving, it can sometimes be hard to remember that those we perceive we’re benefiting may help us more than we help them. There are some who believe that many of these tissue-paper-sellers are simply trying to play off people’s sympathies without having to work at a proper job. But the simple joy and contentedness these two women shared with me despite their circumstances was something that sincerely touched me. I walked away that afternoon with a renewed appreciation of the little kindnesses that can light up our individual journeys through life.
Chinese New Year had already wound down for many Singaporean Chinese families, and most homes lay quietly curled into themselves on what could be largely considered a humdrum Thursday evening. Yet there was one house which had opened itself up, and was instead bubbling with festive cheer once more. More than forty pairs of chopsticks bristled under one roof that night, brandished by people from a melting pot of nationalities invited to partake in these special lunar festivities.
Before each group sat a plate of yusheng–a Southeast Asian New Year’s dish I was already well-acquainted with. It’s a salad consisting of strips of raw vegetables such as carrots, cucumber, radish and turnip meant to be tossed with various condiments of auspicious portent. However, it took on a new significance with the prospect of having to introduce it as a foreign dish to the guests of OCTOPUS Exchange Students Singapore. Three buses would pull up in a different driveway every other Thursday, bearing throngs of international university students eager for good company and great home-cooked fare. The arrangements had been lovingly prepared by none other than a team of volunteers from Mt Carmel Bible Presbyterian Church who would host the students – mostly from the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University – at a different home each week.
An eager silence filled the air as the eleven condiments were emptied, one by one, onto the waiting plate. I named off the respective blessings, all derived from Chinese homonyms between the name of the food and auspicious concepts, in my head – raw fish for annual abundance, fried crackers for troves of wealth, green radish for lasting youth, a sprinkle of lime for felicity.
Then, at the signal, forty pairs of chopsticks dug in to toss the salad into the air in a bid for auspicious wishes. Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans, Hongkongers, Indians, Americans, Canadians, Dutch, Finns, Germans, Swedes, Norwegians and Poles joined their voices in a tentative chorus as they explored this new tradition, led by the raucous shouts of their Singaporean hosts.
“Lo (‘toss’), ah! High GPA! Good health! Prosperity!”
This classic local New Year tradition was an apt start to OCTOPUS’ annual Chinese New Year celebrations, which like other sessions was meant to share a little more of Singapore (and local hospitality) each week to its inquisitive audience of exchange students. The rest of the night was occupied by huge plates of fried egg noodles (“Does this have a name?” I was asked by an Indian Masters student, “It seems like there are so many different kinds of fried noodle in this country.”), savoury glutinous rice cakes and a pot of boiling water at the counter which was constantly being filled with newly-wrapped potstickers. While some chose to have a go at making Chinese food for the first time, others swapped tidbits of conversation. A Frenchman talked about his plans to backpack through the region, a Dutch undergraduate introduced me to Sinterklaas (“like Santa Claus, but more important”) and oliebollen, and one of the volunteers regaled us with his stories of weddings and power suits from his recent visit to New Delhi.
At the tinkle of a bell, the chatter began to die down as the students gathered round the TV for the night’s discussion. The speaker, Leong Ho, gave a brief introduction to the festival before whipping out his acoustic guitar and leading the gathering in traditional New Year’s songs. Though many tongues fumbled with the intricacies of the Mandarin verses, no one missed out on the hearty chorus: “Gong xi, gong xi, gong xi ni ya!” (“Bless you, bless you, bless you!”)
Once we had been broken up into discussion groups, we began to reflect on the significance of the different occassions of food and fun and frivolity that add colour to the calendars of cultures all over the world. The exchange students talked about the festivals they celebrate – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Holi, Diwali, Mid-Autumn, Oshogatsu – and what the values and meaning they held. And as I listened to them speak, I felt as if I could pick out the threads that appeared to run through the festivities of a great majority of humanity – the common celebration of family, goodness and giving that connects all of us no matter which occasions we honour. Only with these were we all able to come together and celebrate a foreign festival in good cheer.
The night ended on a sweet note with plates of muah chee – sticky rice balls dusted with peanuts and sugar – and OCTOPUS’ very own version of nian gao (a sticky glutinous rice cake traditionally eaten for the Chinese New Year, since the word for ‘sticky’ in Mandarin is a homonym with the word for ‘year’) served with grated coconut. ‘Love letters’, also known as crispy biscuit rolls, were distributed to the guests as, one by one, they returned to the bus and left the house as tranquil as the surrounding night.
Nights like this remind me that xenophobia is not as persistent a feature of local society – or, as it lately seems, many societies in different areas of the globe – as many of us might sometimes believe. I’m always still surprised by how there are people out there willing to open both heart and home to complete strangers, with the simple goal of letting them find the warmth and companionship they might pine for back at home. And I hope that at least even this simple show of generosity would make a difference to the stay of the exchange students who had graced us with their company. With this, I believe the Year of the Monkey shall swing off to a good year ahead.